The Army We Have
(Published in the The Weekly Standard. From the December 27, 2004 issue: It's too small. The Weekly Standard)
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DONALD RUMSFELD declared, 'You go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.' The callousness and irresponsible buck-passing of this statement need no further elucidation. Its deeper irony, however, requires a little spelling out.
Donald Rumsfeld has been secretary of defense for four years. He has been an extremely active SecDef, molding the military service agendas, including manpower and materiel policy, with almost unprecedented meticulousness. The American Army in Iraq is very much Rumsfeld's Army. Its relatively small size reflects his belief in the superiority of air power over ground forces. Its lack of armor reflects his conviction that 'lightness' is a virtue. The hesitation to have it engage in rebuilding a shattered state reflects his understanding of war as an activity separate from politics and nation-building. The result: The military measures and manpower policies guiding the current deployment in Iraq do not sufficiently reflect the gravity of the security situation or the political stakes of ensuring a successful transition to democracy.
In the past several weeks, the Bush administration has taken two steps it should have taken six months ago: It destroyed insurgent safe havens in Falluja and elsewhere, and it announced an increase in troop strength to prepare for Iraqi elections in January. U.S. policy will pay a price for the tardiness of these actions. Fallujans will go to the polls, if they feel safe enough, with the vision of American attacks and rebel resistance green in their memories. There may not be time for things to settle down in that war-torn city, a major center of Iraqi Sunnis, prior to the elections. Nor will the limited increase of American forces over the coming weeks have as much impact as would be desirable on the security situation in time for those elections.
The overall manpower situation of the American military, too, is grim. By increasing troop strength primarily by extending the tours of duty of American forces already in Iraq, and by steadfastly refusing to consider increasing the size of the Army in any meaningful way, the administration has committed itself to a risky policy. It effectively assumes that one of three things will happen after the Iraqi elections: (1) The violence and resistance to the establishment of secular democracy will suddenly and dramatically diminish; or (2) the American Army will be able to withstand indefinitely unprecedented strains and hardships; or (3) Iraq will somehow cease to be an American military problem once a democratically elected government has taken power in Baghdad. The first two possibilities are wishful thinking; the third is terrifying.
There is little reason to imagine that insurgent attacks will suddenly and dramatically cease with the election of a democratic Iraqi government. The insurgents are not fighting simply to drive the United States out of Iraq, but to prevent the formation of precisely such a government. For some insurgents, in fact, only a government based on a radical interpretation of Islam can be legitimate. The period after the elections may well see attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces on a par with those we've seen in recent months.
It is quite possible that the insurgents will begin to shift their attacks away from U.S. forces and onto Iraqi forces and leaders, but Americans should take no solace from such a scenario. The nascent Iraqi state will not be able to defend itself for many months, perhaps years, after the election. Until then, it will be vulnerable to insurgents who can play on difficulties in the economy and on the inevitable hiccups that attend the formation of any new democracy. It is highly probable that if U.S. forces do not continue to defend democracy in Iraq, then democracy in Iraq will perish.
The consequences may well be disastrous should democracy fail in Iraq. When the United States invaded Iraq with the intention of establishing the first Arab democracy, it placed democracy itself on trial in the Middle East. Many in the region, and outside as well, declared that Arabs could not have democracy, or, more ominously, that democracy was inappropriate for Muslims. If the United States oversees the first real elections in a modern Arab land and then sits idly by as radical insurgents destroy the government, we will have set back the cause of democracy in the Middle East immeasurably. We will also have created excellent conditions for terrorists to reestablish bases and training camps in the heart of the Muslim world. The only way forward for America now is through success in Iraq.
It is likely, therefore, that a significant American military presence in Iraq will be necessary for some time. So the question becomes how much pain can the Army stand before breaking? There is no obvious answer, for America has never tried to sustain its armed forces for so long without dramatically increasing their number. And the armed forces have been holding up amazingly well. But, eventually, the toll of separation from families for more than a year at a time, of back-to-back rotations that make the separation even longer, and of seemingly endless duty at the front lines of a complicated and dangerous insurgency, will likely damage the Army's morale.
With no relief in sight and a force too small for the current mission, the probability that the Army will break under the pressure increases day by day. Rumsfeld's callous and flippant responses to serious questions raised by troops in Iraq could bring that day ever closer. If it arrives, skilled and experienced officers and senior NCOs will begin to leave the force. Recruiting for the active force will go down. The National Guard and Reserve will wilt under the strain. The result will be a serious erosion of American combat power at a critical time, and the consequences could last for decades.
This, however, is not the worst gamble that the Bush administration is taking. What if another contingency arises? What does this military inadequacy do to our bargaining positions with Iran and North Korea? How will the nation respond to Crisis X, wherever it may be?
It was apparent to some as long ago as the mid-1990s that the American Army was too small. The urgency of that problem has been clear to many since September 11. The time lost in increasing the Army to proper strength cannot be regained, but we can mitigate the dangerous consequences for an uncertain future if we start now. President Bush should use the election mandate he received to take the next bold step in the war for democracy and against terrorism. He should insist upon an immediate and dramatic increase in the size of our armed forces to allow them to carry out his wise determination to prevail in Iraq and in the war on terror.
Some question whether the necessary increase, perhaps 200,000 new troops or more, can be reached without a new draft. The historical evidence suggests it can. In 1985, the active Army numbered more than 780,000 men and women. As late as 1991, there were more than 750,000 soldiers. Today there are around 500,000 troops in the active Army. Even at the height of the Reagan economic boom and in the waning days of the Cold War, the volunteer force mustered more than 250,000 troops above the current level. The threat now is just as great and more imminent. If the president called upon the American people to show their support not by flying yellow ribbons but by joining the Army, there is no reason to believe that they would not do so.
The best way to save the Army from collapse under strains too great to bear, the best way to prepare the nation for the long, hard struggles that lie ahead, is to return the Army to the size it maintained throughout the end of the last long, hard struggle. This task will take time, resources, skill, and determination. It will suffer from the time already lost. But the problems and dangers only increase when little is done to address this vital component of an effective strategy for fighting the war on terror.
*Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and coauthor of While America Sleeps.